'This is Definitely Plagiarism': Harvard University President Claudine Gay Copied Entire Paragraphs From Others’ Academic Work and Claimed Them as Her Own

Claudine Gay (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
December 11, 2023

Harvard University president Claudine Gay plagiarized numerous academics over the course of her academic career, at times airlifting entire paragraphs and claiming them as her own work, according to reviews by several scholars.

In four papers published between 1993 and 2017, including her doctoral dissertation, Gay, a political scientist, paraphrased or quoted nearly 20 authors—including two of her colleagues in Harvard University’s department of government—without proper attribution, according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis. Other examples of possible plagiarism, all from Gay’s dissertation, were publicized Sunday by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo and Karlstack’s Chris Brunet.

The Free Beacon worked with nearly a dozen scholars to analyze 29 potential cases of plagiarism. Most of them said that Gay had violated a core principle of academic integrity as well as Harvard’s own anti-plagiarism policies, which state that "it's not enough to change a few words here and there."

Rather, scholars are expected to cite the sources of their work, including when paraphrasing, and to use quotation marks when quoting directly from others. But in at least 10 instances, Gay lifted full sentences—even entire paragraphs—with just a word or two tweaked.

In her 1997 thesis, for example, she borrowed a full paragraph from a paper by the scholars Bradley Palmquist, then a political science professor at Harvard, and Stephen Voss, one of Gay’s classmates in her Ph.D. program at Harvard, while making only a couple alterations, including changing their "decrease" to "increase" because she was studying a different set of data.

The four papers that include plagiarized material comprise a sizable portion of Gay’s academic work. Gay, who is Harvard's 30th president, has authored just 11 peer-reviewed articles.

"If this were a stand-alone instance, it would be reprehensible but perhaps excused as the blunder of someone working hastily," said Peter Wood, a former associate provost of Boston University, where he helped investigate several cases of suspected plagiarism. "But that excuse vanishes as the examples multiply," said Wood, who now serves as the director of the National Association of Scholars.

Some of the most clear-cut cases come in Gay’s 1997 dissertation, "Taking Charge: Black Electoral Success and the Redefinition of American Politics," which copied two paragraphs almost verbatim from Palmquist and Voss.

The paragraphs—from a paper Palmquist and Voss had presented a year earlier, in 1996—do not appear in quotation marks. One is unmodified but for a handful of words, and Gay does not cite Palmquist or Voss anywhere in her dissertation.

"This is definitely plagiarism," said Lee Jussim, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, who reviewed 10 side-by-side comparisons provided by the Free Beacon, including the paragraphs from Gay’s dissertation, which received a prize from Harvard for "exceptional merit."

"The longer passages are the most egregious," he added.

Academics say the pattern raises serious questions about Gay’s scholarly integrity and her fitness to lead the nation’s oldest university, which has been at the center of a political firestorm under her watch, particularly since Oct. 7. Student activists have blamed Israel for the Hamas terrorist attack and Gay herself offered equivocal testimony before Congress about whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s code of conduct.

Donors, alumni, and over 70 congressmen have called on Gay to resign. University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, who testified alongside Gay, tendered her resignation on Saturday.

"The question here is whether the president of an elite institution such as Harvard can feasibly have an academic record this marred by obvious plagiarism," said Alexander Riley, a sociologist at Bucknell University. "I do not see how Harvard could possibly justify keeping her in that position in light of this evidence."

Neither Gay nor Harvard responded to a request for comment.

Other cases of near-verbatim quotation occur in two peer-reviewed journal articles from 2017 and 2012, when Gay was a tenured professor at Harvard, as well as in an essay she published one year out of college, in 1993. Along with her dissertation, the decades-long pattern paints a picture of sloppiness, at best, and willful dishonesty at worst.

"It seems clear that Gay had a habit of using others' words in ways that violated Harvard's policies," a professor at a top research university, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard’s government department, told the Free Beacon. "And several examples would land any student in serious trouble."

Gay’s 1993 essay, "Between Black and White: The Complexity of Brazilian Race Relations," lifts sentences and historical details from two scholars, David Covin and George Reid Andrews, with just a few words dropped or modified. Covin is not cited anywhere in the essay.

In a section called "Suggestions for Further Reading," Gay does include Andrews’s 1991 book, Blacks & Whites in São Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1988, but not his 1992 paper, "Black Political Protest in São Paulo, 1888-1988," from which the offending text was drawn.

The 1993 essay "concerns me less," Riley said, given how early it was in Gay’s career. "However, it shows a quantity of plagiarism so egregious that minimally Dr. Gay should stop putting it on her CV."

The two peer-reviewed papers, by contrast, are "much more serious," Riley said.

In "Moving To Opportunity: the Political Effects of a Housing Mobility Experiment," Gay borrowed language from a 2003 report by eight researchers—three of them Harvard economists—prepared for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And in "A Room for One’s Own? The Partisan Allocation of Affordable Housing," Gay borrowed language from a 2010 book by Alex Schwartz, Housing Policy in the United States, and from a 2011 paper by Matthew Freedman and Emily Owens, "Low-Income Housing Development and Urban Crime."

Freedman and Owens are never cited, though Gay thanks them for letting her use their data. Gay does cite Schwartz and the eight researchers elsewhere in "Moving to Opportunity" but not in the sentences where their quotes appear. None of the passages have quotation marks, creating the impression that they are Gay’s own language and ideas.

Some examples are more borderline than others, scholars who reviewed them said, but clearly violate Harvard’s guide on sourcing, which requires citations even when using "ideas that you did not think up yourself," regardless of how much the language has changed. Plagiarism, the guide adds, is "unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident."

Even crediting a source in the wrong sentence, as Gay did repeatedly, is a serious offense under Harvard’s policies. The school’s sourcing guide includes multiple examples of "mosaic plagiarism," in which placing a citation too late or too early in a passage causes "confusion over where your source's ideas end and your own ideas begin."

Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that several portions of Gay’s work met the definition of "mosaic plagiarism" outlined in Harvard’s guide. So did Steve McGuire, a member of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a former professor of political theory at Villanova University, who said the examples "violate the expectations Harvard has for its own students."

"As a professor, I would not have accepted this kind of work from a first semester freshman," McGuire told the Free Beacon. "It’s appalling to see it in the work of Harvard’s president."

Rossman, who specializes in quantitative research, noted that some of the examples involve technical descriptions of statistical methods, which "can require very precise wording" and are often repeated between authors, a potentially mitigating factor. But an editor at one of the five most-cited academic journals in the world pushed back on that notion, arguing that even that sort of duplication in academic prose is difficult to defend.

"The text duplication points to carelessness, sloppiness, and short-cut taking," said the editor, who has edited journals in both the natural and social sciences.

Some of the victims of Gay’s plagiarism were more sanguine. Jeffrey Liebman, one of the Harvard economists who prepared the Department of Housing report, said he and four of his coauthors did "not see any signs of plagiarism." Like Rossman, he argued that it was defensible for scholars to crib technical descriptions from each other.

Gay "had the right to use and adapt this common language," he said.

Voss, who coauthored the 1996 paper with Palmquist, said that although the paragraphs Gay quoted were "technically plagiarism," they were "not terribly important" to her argument.

"If I caught a student doing that, I would tell them it was inappropriate," Voss said. "But I would never consider taking action against the student."

But Wood, the former Boston University associate provost, said the feelings of the plagiarized are irrelevant.

The "willingness of the actual author to go along with the copying (whether before the fact or afterwards) doesn't change the deceptive nature of the act of plagiarism," he said. "The plagiarist is breaking the trust of the community of readers. In the case of scholarship, the whole university community is the victim."

It is common for plagiarized authors to come to the defense of their plagiarizer, Wood said. When Princeton historian Kevin Kruse was accused of plagiarizing Ronald Bayor, a historian at Georgia Tech, for example, Bayor dismissed the accusations as "politically motivated."

Other cases of possible plagiarism—all from Gay’s dissertation—were uncovered Sunday by the Manhattan Institute’s Rufo and Karlstack’s Brunet. Though the revelations are new, rumors of Gay’s plagiarism have been circulating on, a popular message board for social scientists, since at least January 2023.

"Most plagiarists turn out to be serial thieves," Wood said. "If the offense is discovered in one publication, typically it will be found in others."

In a statement to the Boston Globe, Gay said she stood by the integrity of her scholarship.

The Harvard Corporation, which held an emergency meeting over the weekend after Gay’s disastrous testimony on Capitol Hill last week, did not respond to a request for comment.

Update 10:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Gay had not cited Alex Schwartz in the paragraph where his quote appears. She did cite him in that paragraph, but not in the sentence where she quoted him.